27 Body

Croatian sees body parts and what’s felt in them in a quite different way than English. Let’s check words for body parts first:

glava head
lakat (lakt-) elbow
leđa n pl. back
koljeno knee
kosa hair
kost f bone
noga leg/foot
nos nose

peta heel
prst finger, toe
rame (ramen-) shoulder
ruka hand/arm
trbuh stomach (belly) ®
usta n pl. mouth
vrat neck
zub tooth

Words leđa and usta we have already encountered: they exist only in plural. Both words are neuter. The noun rame belongs to a small group of neuter nouns with case-base extended with an n.

It’s interesting that Croatian doesn’t distinguish arm from hand or leg from foot! There’s only one word for both arm and hand.

Now, there are two very useful and often used verbs:

boljeti (boli) hurt

svrbiti itch

The verb boljeti has past forms like živjeti and other verbs on -jeti. (The verb svrbiti has another infinitive form, svrbjeti – it’s more formal – but the present forms are the same; for more, see 58 Colloquial and Formal).

Now, the English verb itch can be used in two ways:

My leg itches.

The shirt itches me.

Both Croatian verbs are always used in the second way. Something (a body part, shirt...) always does something (itches, ‘hurts’) to someone. In Croatian, the first sentence translates as:

Svrbi me noga.The leg is itching me.’ = My leg itches.

One who gets affected is in accusative, and the body part or anything else that causes feelings is the subject of the sentence, and therefore in nominative. What is the source of feelings is often put to the end.

This, a bit unexpected use of cases, is sometimes called inverse assignment. What you expect to be a subject actually isn’t, at least grammatically.

If you use personal pronouns, they of course must be at the second place, but if you use general nouns or names, they are usually put to the first place. They must be in accusative, since they are really objects: legs, shirts, etc. are itching them:

Anu svrbi noga.The leg is itching Ana.’ = Ana’s leg itches.

Such placement is common in Croatian: if you express someone’s feelings or experience, it’s normal to put him or her to the front, regardless of case. Recall this example:

Ani je bilo dosadno. (DL) Ana was bored.

Pain is expressed in exactly the same way:

Boli me zub.The tooth is hurting me.’ = My tooth hurts.

You must bear in mind that leđa and usta are always in plural, despite everyone having just one. Since they are subjects, verbs must be put into plural as well:

Leđa me bole.The backs are hurting me.’ = My back hurts.

Usta me svrbe.The mouths are itching me.’ = My mouth itches.

We haven’t learned plural of masculine nouns yet, but for both prst and zub, it’s simply made by adding an -i:

Gorana bole zubi. Goran’s teeth hurt.

All sentences above were in the present tense. Examples for the past tense (keep in mind that the body part is the subject in such sentences):

Anu je svrbila noga. Ana’s leg itched.

Leđa su me boljela. My back has hurt.

Gorana su boljeli zubi. Goran’s teeth have hurt.

There are two more body parts, and both are quite special: their plural form is not only irregular, it’s in different gender:

noun plural noun
oko eye oči f pl.
uho ear uši f pl.

For example:

Anu boli oko. Ana’s eye hurts.

Anu bole oči. Ana’s eyes hurt.

The gender switch is visible in the past tense:

Anu je boljelo oko. Ana’s eye has hurt.

Anu su boljele oči. Ana’s eyes have hurt.

When talking about body parts, it’s common to express possession somehow. Don’t forget that it’s normal, when you use body parts as objects, to express possession by DL:

Ana pere Goranu kosu. Ana is washing Goran’s hair.

The DL case is also used, usually in speech, to express possession of a described body part as well, that is, when a body part is the subject of the verb biti (je² +) be. We start from these sentences:

Kosa je čista. The hair is clean.

Noge su prljave. The feet are dirty.

Here the nouns kosa hair and noga leg/foot (in plural noge) are the subjects. Then we add the person in DL, and change the word order a bit, as usual (but the body parts are still subjects):

Goranu je kosa čista. Goran’s hair is clean.

Goranu su noge prljave. Goran’s feet are dirty.

We can shuffle words around, e.g. ... čista kosa and so on.

There’s another way: you can usually express possession with the verb imati have. Now the body parts and any adjectives describing them are in A:

Goran ima čistu kosu. Goran has clean hair.

Goran ima prljave noge. Goran has dirty feet.

There’s something very interesting. The way #1 to describe a body part – using DL for possession of it – is limited to temporary properties. Using it to express more permanent properties (e.g. color) is very rare.

The same holds for clothes. If a T-shirt is dirty – and especially if someone is wearing it — you can say:

Majica ti je prljava. Your T-shirt is dirty. (The T-shirt you’re wearing)

But nobody would use that expression to express that the shirt is red, as this is a permanent property.

Of course, there’s yet another way to express possession: with possessive adjectives, like Goranov. It can be used for both kinds of properties. However, it’s less often used in speech, the two ways above are preferred.

There’s another way to look at this feature. Temporary properties – wet, dirty, clean etc. affect the person. It’s something he or she maybe doesn’t know. Everyone knows he or she has a long or brown hair, or a red shirt. This is yet another example where DL = the affected person.

I admit – this is a rather fine point. If you are going to use possessive adjectives or the verb imati in all circumstances, you will still be understood, of course. Just be prepared to hear such expressions from native speakers, and to use them if you want to really talk like a native speaker.

® Instead of trbuh, the noun stomak is common in Serbia and Bosnia; it also means stomach.

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5 Easy Croatian: 27 Body Croatian sees body parts and what’s felt in them in a quite different way than English. Let’s check words for body parts first: glava he...

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